The “metaverse” means different things to different people, and even tech insiders have many definitions. Nandhini Giri, assistant professor of human-computer interaction and entertainment graphics in Purdue University’s Department of Computer Graphics Technology, says that in addition to the terms many people are familiar with today – VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) and XR ( expanded reality). reality) – she and her students have also heard a lot about the implications of the metaverse for “digital reality” and “mixed reality”, aiming for a seamless convergence between our physical and virtual lives.
Essentially, all of these terms refer to a range of evolving technologies that Giri says “exist on a continuum between the physical and the virtual.” The underlying technology requires a user to put on a VR headset that fully encompasses their vision and allows them to experience a 3D environment – as if they were suddenly living in a video game.
But for Giri and her students, broadly speaking, it’s about “creating a seamless connection between reality and the digital world.” Giri emphasizes that influential tech companies are still putting their heads together to push this technology, so the rules aren’t set in stone.
The lack of a rulebook has contributed to a free-spirited atmosphere in this new market – and, Giri says, Purdue’s forward-thinking students are making good use of the freedom of this virtual Wild West. Last fall, ten graduate students from Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute collaborated with Giri and a multinational company called Iconic Engine to prototype futuristic Metaverse versions of Ross Ade Stadium and Mackey Arena that resemble a 3D level in a video game VR can be navigated headset.
The course, CGT 58100, was called Design Futures. Her students came from different areas of computer graphics technology. Some came from game development, others brought additional skills by creating 3D graphical assets or the player’s user interface, while others analyzed the user experience on a conceptual level.
Design Futures enabled students to do more than just improve their skills in this new technology frontier. They also flexed their creative muscles and began the precise process of prototyping a 3D world using Iconic Engine’s trademarked Metaverse Engine, which contained real-world elements of the Purdue football or basketball program that Boilermakers would recognize from the real steed -Ade or Mackey.
Giri emphasized that Design Futures students start with the big picture before moving into Metaverse design.
“They started with what-if scenarios that were mapped out [potential futures] for this technology,” she said. “I wanted them to work on some of the philosophical, theoretical foundations of media and entertainment practices. This includes ideas about why we experience or enjoy certain things when they appear in the media.”
The students were divided into two teams, one for Purdue’s soccer program and one for basketball. While it was important to mimic the venues, it wasn’t the only focus of the teams’ pitches to Giri and her staff at Iconic Engine (including the company’s chief technology officer, a lead developer, and the operations manager). Instead, the teams developed “ways that this technology could actually lead to future products that are highly integrated with the physical sports experience on campus.” Students wondered if, in the long term, the technology could enable hyper-accurate motion capture on the athletes themselves, allowing instant playback for referees to view from all possible angles in 3D space.
Giri directed both student teams to explore ideas for enhancing Purdue’s sports culture through the use of XR gaming technology to enhance the Boilermakers experience.
“Try to see what could be improved in five, ten years,” she said. “There’s a lot of secondary research for that — look at the social media posts of students talking about their experiences. How do they get to the stadium or get their tickets? What is it like actually navigating this space? What are the logistical challenges that the Metaverse could be a solution to?”
While the students were willing to combine their technical skills with creative approaches, they also leveraged the experience and vision of Iconic Engine’s staff. The company did much more than provide students with the in-game resources to create Purdue’s sports venues – they also acted as creative partners and advisors, with a dedicated Slack channel providing near-constant communication throughout the semester and the experience of working in one enabled real development pipeline.
“Your enthusiasm actually helped the class overcome their own intimidation,” Giri said. “The approach and attitude made us all very happy.”
“Seeing PhD students use ours [trademarked] Metaverse Engine to create such immersive and unique experiences in just six weeks has truly demonstrated the potential of our technology. We’re committed to making the Metaverse accessible to all, and this collaboration was a significant step toward that goal,” added Amit Chopra, CEO of Iconic Engine.
By the end of the semester, both teams had a full stadium or arena modeled after Purdue’s facilities, replete with a variety of activities designed to replicate—or even enhance—the experience of attending a game at Purdue. In addition to creating recreations of the video boards in both venues and implementing lifelike touches like crowd cheering capabilities and physics, both teams also took advantage of the freedom the metaverse afforded. The football group organized a hidden memorabilia scavenger hunt around Ross Ade Stadium, and the basketball group focused on enriching Mackey Arena’s internal environment by creating interactive lounges and game spaces for social interaction between players.
The future of the technology used in Design Futures is still being decided, but Giri speculated that such technologies could eventually become industry standards. Faced with this opportunity, she created Design Futures for students to consider how they could carve out their own place in the industry.
“With all the unknowns, how do you see yourself moving the industry forward?” said Giri. “So they see themselves as pioneers. It’s a good time to start those conversations instead of just telling them, ‘Hey, that’s the technology,’ and giving them a routine.”
The results of last fall’s development of the new Design Futures course — from student feedback to the partnership with Iconic Engine — have been promising enough, Giri said, that she plans to offer the course to a new graduate cohort each fall semester.